Mickelson back on top at Riviera

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Phil Mickelson has carried on from where he left off last week by securing the first-round lead at the Northern Trust Open.

A still-hot Phil Mickelson carried on from where he left off at Pebble Beach on Sunday when he secured the lead in Thursday’s first round of the Northern Trust Open.

The high-flying Californian left-hander shot a sparkling 5-under-par 66 on a difficult day of strong winds that gusting up to 35 mph (56 kph) at storied Riviera Country Club at the Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles to take a one-shot lead ahead of fellow Americans JB Holmes and Hunter Mahan.

A fourth American, Jonathan Byrd, who played in the morning when the winds were at their strongest, and Swede Carl Pettersson, were a further shot back in joint 4th place on 68s while England World No 1 Luke Donald opened his US PGA Tour season with a solid 2-under 70.

Sergio Garcia, who opened with a 69, is one shot in front of Donald in a group that included Stewart Cink and KJ Choi.

Thirty players were still out on the course including Padraig Harrington, who was one-over with two holes to play, when bad light saw the round suspended, but with South Africa’s Rory Sabbatini, the winner here is 2006, closest to the lead at only 1-under with a hole to play, there isn’t much chance of Mickelson losing his lead when the round is completed early on Friday morning.

Still riding the rich vein of form that gave him the flawless final-round 64 that won him his 4th AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am last Sunday, a still smiling Mickelson, the winner at Riviera in 2008 and 2009, mixed six birdies and one bogey in surging back to the top of the leaderboard.

And nothing delighted him more than his chip-in from 35 feet that earned him the unexpected birdie at the last that helped him shrug away his only mistake at the par-three 16th hole

“It wasn’t one I was really trying to make,” Mickelson told the media afterwards. “It was quick, it was downhill and I had to play about four or five feet of break.

“I was trying to get good speed to let it feed into the break. I got fortunate obviously when it went in.”

“I left one or two (shots) out on 16 and 17, and you hate to have such a good round and then let a few slide late,” added Mickelson, who failed to make a gettable birdie the par-five 17th.

“So to make that shot unexpectedly on 18 felt like I got one of those back.”

Mahan, who like his Ryder Cup team-mate Mickelson played in the afternoon, surged into contention with a sizzling run of four consecutive birdies from the par-four fifth, his 14th hole.

“I hit it good all day, with just a couple of loose swings. Other than that, I was very solid from tee to green,” Mahan said of his eight-birdie, two bogeys and one double-bogey round. “I put myself in good position all day to make putts.

“On the last seven holes the wind started to die down progressively, and by the end, Riviera couldn’t have been playing any nicer or any better, so I was excited to come make some late birdies.”

Big-hitting Holmes, perhaps, had the greatest reason to celebrate his first-round success. He is playing in only his fourth PGA Tour event since having brain surgery last year.

The American returned to competition at last month’s Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego, having been sidelined since August after being diagnosed with Chiari malformation, structural defects in the part of the brain which controls balance.

“It feels great to get out here and put in a good round right off the bat,” the big-hitting 29-year-old said

“I made a bunch of birdies, a few mistakes, but overall it was a very good round for me, especially in these conditions.

“It was really difficult. We got about four holes where the wind wasn’t blowing. But it was really whipping most of the day..

“I’m probably not quite 100 percent, but I definitely feel a whole lot better with my swing and my game and everything right now than I did at San Diego.”

LATEST TOP 10 LEADERBOARD

66 Phil Mickelson
67 Hunter Mahan, J.B. Holmes
68 Carl Pettersson (Swe), Jonathan Byrd
69 Brendan Steele, Sergio Garcia, K J Choi, Brandt Jobe, Stewart Cink, Matt Kuchar

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